Failed Western Prayer Formulas

Last New Year’s, a lot of people I know were very excited and relieved to ring in 2014. “We made it! Take that, 2013!” my friends exalted. At the time, I could not shake this terrible sinking feeling not unlike the one you get when you’re only half-way through a horror movie and all the characters turn to each other and say, “Whew! Glad THAT’S over…”

I am profoundly sad about apparently having been right about that.

A couple of Sundays ago, we were invited to spend time with some friends in a crisis. We had (and still have) some of our own kind-of-intense-but-not-life-threatening stuff going on, (in addition to several distinct intense-and-life-threatening things one or two or three rings out from us) and I did not feel up to the task of walking into the room with a clear head and heart to be present with my friends in the way I wanted to.

So I reached out to a priest friend of ours and said, “I need you to come say true things to me so I can try to remember them tomorrow.”

And he did. He said a lot of true things to us, some things in ways I hadn’t thought of before, some things I have written about myself here and other places. One thing that really struck me was the idea that in Western religion, we tend to think that praying is about entering the right formula to get the result we want. If we ask in the right way, if we have behaved the right way, we will get what we ask for from God. I was raised in a tradition that can point to many places in the Bible that seem to corroborate this view (if you read the Bible in other specific ways, you can corroborate the ideas of forced polygamy, stoning women -and only the women- for adultery, and slavery as ‘Biblical’ too…I’m coming to think that the “broadly prescriptive” approach may not always be the best way to read the Bible).

But to be completely honest, I like this formulaic method to a point. It’s simple and clear and I know what I’m supposed to doThe problem with that method is that right now anything I try to write about God makes me sound like either an angry hard-line agnostic, or one of Job’s friends. “God’s ways are not our ways.” and other such platitudes only serve to fuel a growing rage and despair. Or I consider Job. Awful things are happening to him, and his friends are convinced that it is somehow his doing because God, being perfect, wouldn’t do anything to Job that wasn’t perfect. Their conclusion is that God must be punishing Job for something. They can not see another explanation. It must be his fault.

Left with only those two dismal options, everything feels too hard and mean and confusing. Lots of the things people keep saying about God sound like things which are ‘acceptable to such as do not care to know him.’ If popular theology is to be believed, either God is pulling puppet strings in order to make the best show possible (mean), or God is not fully in control and is really more of a cool uncle type (confusing–who’s driving this thing? Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?).

When I get into this place, it goes badly with me. I start to wonder what point there is to anything. Somehow George MacDonald is always there to speak truth to me through his books and sermons (when I remember to read them), and somehow he never fails to make me able to see the goodness of God again, even if it’s just a glimpse. Even when that seems impossible.

So I will not try to show my own work here any more. It’s not getting me anywhere. Instead I will try to read and incorporate the words of my “Uncle George,” as many of his devoted readers call him. Even just my excerpts are a little lengthy, but I am posting them all because I find them life giving in some way and I need to read them. I will be bookmarking this post for myself.


Some excerpts from “The Voice of Job” by George MacDonald

He feels he has not deserved such suffering, and will neither tell nor listen to lies for God.

Job is nothing of a Stoic, but bemoans himself like a child–a brave child who seems to himself to suffer wrong, and recoils with horror-struck bewilderment from the unreason of the thing.

From a soul whose very consciousness is contradiction, we must not look for logic; misery is rarely logical; it is itself a discord; yet is it nothing less than natural that, feeling as if God wronged him, Job should yet be ever yearning after a sight of God, straining into his presence, longing to stand face to face with him. He would confront the One. He is convinced, or at least cherishes as his one hope the idea, that, if he could but get God to listen to him, if he might but lay his case clear before him, God would not fail to see how the thing was, and would explain the matter to him.

God is not a God to accept the flattery which declares him above obligation to his creatures. His [Job’s] faith is in truth profound, yet is he always complaining. It is but the form his faith takes in his trouble.

He uses language which, used by any living man, would horrify the religious of the present day, in proportion to the lack of truth in them, just as it horrified his three friends, the honest pharisees of the time, whose religion was ‘doctrine’ and rebuke. God speaks not a word of rebuke to Job for the freedom of his speech:–he has always been seeking such as Job to worship him.

It is not at first easy to see wherein God gives Job any answer; I cannot find that he offers him the least explanation of why he has so afflicted him. He calls up before him, one after another, the works of his hands. The answer, like some of our Lord’s answers if not all of them, seems addressed to Job himself, not to his intellect; to the revealing, God-like imagination in the man, and to no logical faculty whatever.

It is through their show, not through their analysis, that we enter into their deepest truths. What they say to the childlike soul is the truest thing to be gathered of them. To know a primrose is a higher thing than to know all the botany of it–just as to know Christ is an infinitely higher thing than to know all theology, all that is said about his person, or babbled about his work.

To deny the existence of God may, paradoxical as the statement will at first seem to some, involve less unbelief than the smallest yielding to doubt of his goodness. I say yielding; for a man may be haunted with doubts, and only grow thereby in faith. Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to rouse the honest. They are the first knock at our door of things that are not yet, but have to be, understood.

One great point in the poem is–that when Job hears the voice of God, though it utters no word of explanation, it is enough to him to hear it: he knows that God is, and that he hears the cry of his creature. Even if Job could not at first follow his argument of divine probability, God settled everything for him when, by answering him out of the whirlwind, he showed him that he had not forsaken him.

2 thoughts on “Failed Western Prayer Formulas

  1. The book of Job meant a lot to me when I was in Tanz, struggling to get better, only getting worse and I had loads of lovely, well-meaning, God-fearing people tell me that I just needed to “pray and worship more.” Some of the best words I received came from a Rowan Atkinson movie where he plays a reverend in the Church of England. (I know. I know.) He said, “God never tells Job why. He simply gives Job evidence that He is trustworthy and wise.”


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